It is time for your horse’s vaccinations. A vet is coming to the barn in the morning to vaccinate your horse and many others in the barn. You plan to go out to the barn in the evening knowing your horse may be a bit under the weather, but not expecting anything serious. When you arrive, you find your horse standing in the corner with his head hung low. When he turns around, you see a white stringy substance oozing from his eyes, and they are bloodshot and glassy. He is hot to the touch and just looks generally miserable. You decide to take his temperature. It is 102.9 degrees F (Fahrenheit). Since horses can have a normal resting temperature range of 99-101 degrees F, is this a high fever?
You go out to the pasture to get your horse and bring her in for the evening. As you approach, you notice a cut on your horse’s chest and a fair amount of blood though the wound does not appear to be bleeding too much at the moment. Your horse does not really want to move, but eventually she starts to walk back to the barn with you. You call the vet. She asks: What is your horse’s heart rate? Do you know why your vet asked what your horse’s heart rate is? Do you know how check your horse’s heart rate? (Technically pulse and heart rate are two related but different vital signs, but for most people they are referring to the same thing.)
In Scenario #1, you will only know if this is a high fever if you have previously taken your horse’s temperature at rest when he/she was healthy. If your horse’s normal resting temperature is 99 F, then 102.9 F is a lot more cause for concern than if your horse’s normal resting temperature is 101 F.
In Scenario #2, the answer is your vet is concerned about shock. Shock essentially means that something is preventing your horse’s body from delivering adequate blood supply to the tissues. This can be the result of an acute trauma and resultant blood loss. Also, a horse that has been sick for several days can go into shock. While the signs and symptoms of shock can vary, a rapid heart rate is usually present.
These scenarios are unfortunately not uncommon. There are many more common scenarios as well such as colic, getting a limb stuck in a fence, equine influenza, and trailering related accidents, including loading and unloading, just to name a few. Also, for some reason, things often seem to happen at 10pm in the evening, so your call to the vet starts with, “I am so sorry to bother you this late at night, but my horse…..”
It is extremely helpful to your vet when your description of the situation includes your horse’s vital signs. It can help him or her assess the severity and urgency of the situation, and potentially literally save your horse's life!
In short, I believe it is essential that every horse owner, including teenagers, know how to take their horse’s temperature, heart rate (pulse), and respiration rate as well as know how to listen for gut sounds and assess their horse’s mucous membranes to look for additional signs of shock and/or illness.
Here is free downloadable chart of the common equine vital signs and how to take them. Holistic Horse Bodyworks/Stretch Your Horse Helpful Links page.
Common Mistakes in Taking Vital Signs
Be aware of these common errors that can occur when taking your horse's vitals.
Practice taking your horse’s vital signs often so you know what is normal and so that taking them becomes second nature to you. Doing so can literally save your horse’s life!
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Ilene Nessenson, Certified Equine Bodyworker, is the creator of Stretch Your Horse, a 25 horse stretching video tutorial collection.